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The Tao of Teaching: Part 10

This article is part of a series of writings on Greta Nagel’s book The Tao of Teaching: The Ageless Wisdom of Taoism and the Art of Teaching. The goal of this series is to promote discourse on topics related to teaching, classroom management, student-centered learning and other progressive educational methods. Utilizing the enlightenment and wisdom offered in this book as an impetus and guide, I will critically reflect on my own teaching practices and connect my own experiences to the anecdotes and examples provided by Nagel. You can read Part 9 of this series here.

Check out The Tao of Teaching here.

Learn more about Greta Nagel here.

This will be the final installment of this series. Be sure to check out the Epilogue to find other installments and catch up on what you may have missed.

The Way Cannot Be Mastered

Just as there is no end to learning, there is no end to the Way. It is easy to get too focused on goals in terms of learning. Education is a constantly evolving process. The way we view learning itself also continues to change. For my own perspective on how my understanding of learning has shifted, you could watch the video in Part 4 of this series.

The term lifelong learning is becoming more popular in today’s discussions about education. More and more adults are seeking a variety of classes, workshops, certification course and higher ed degrees to keep up with today’s competitive global work force. Additionally, our understanding of what is actually included in education is growing. The benefits and enjoyment to be gained from everyday, personal learning are boundless. It is a continuous process that truly has no end. Learners never stop learning. There is always a new skill to “master.”

Remember also that the Way is difficult. Do not ask or expect the impossible from your students. Encourage mistakes and the learning that comes from them. Nagel reminds us to be flexible and allow time for learners to acquire new skills and knowledge:

“Know when to ebb in the process of teaching. Provide the essentials, light the flame, but leave the deepening of understanding to the individual. It may not happen soon, or at all, but anything the teacher pushes will be insecure at best.”
No one can fully master the Way . Know when to stop. — The Tao of Teaching

I would amend the above quote to say: “Know when to take a break.” As you’ve already read, I’m a firm believer in ongoing learning. Thus, I don’t feel that learning should ever completely stop.

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Perfection is not the goal of learning, nor is victory over something or someone. Learning is intensely personal. I think most of us can admit that we are not now, nor do we expect to be, perfect. We should accept ourselves with our flaws and our merits. So with learning, we must accept that there is no final goal in which we achieve completeness, enlightenment or finality. Learning is a constant struggle for improvement. Never ending.

As educators, it is important to recognize this struggle in learners. It is not easy. Reduce stressful and rigid competition and avoid pushing students too hard. Do not attempt to battle with your students in order to get them to learn something or behave a specific way. Nagel advises us that there is no glory in victory:

“The teacher who wins an argument or competition does not win students over. Victory is an external event, not a personal thing. It signifies lack of harmony or understanding. A winner on one side always promotes a loser on the other. There is nothing to be proud of in any loss of humanity or humility.”

This is not to take away from the positive aspects of achievement. Successes and milestones should be celebrated. A student who makes a connection, grasps a concept or increases their understanding should be congratulated. One can certainly become an expert or “master” of his or her craft, but a true master realizes that he or she still has things to learn.

I am about to complete and earn my master’s degree in education. It is very tempting to view this time as a finish line and think that once I have this degree, it’s time to stop. I may also be tempted to allow pride in my achievement to give me the idea that I am now some kind of expert who can imbue my students with my profound wisdom. This is most certainly not the case. The Tao is good at reminding us that the more we learn, the more we learn we do not know.

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Humility is crucial. We often need the assistance of others as learners and as educators. We often need to recognize, especially as educators that we are not the central focus in the classroom. I have worked with some really amazing people and educators throughout my career. Some of them have amazingly entertaining, funny and powerful personalities. I have seen some of them become so wrapped up in their performance as a teacher, that the focus on the learners is lost. The classroom becomes a stage for the teacher to entertain the students. This, in my opinion, is not effective education.

When the focus remains on the students, the environment will thrive for everyone. Nagel reminds educators that their place is not always in the forefront and that your position or appearance is not what reveals your strength. She states:

“Wise teachers ‘steer the boat’ by using the rudder in the back; they do not need to be at the prow to influence the direction being taken. Serve your students’ needs in order to lead them. Be where they need you to be, at the right time and in the right place.”

I don’t mean to imply that fun and entertainment is not a valuable aspect of learning. Modeling and leading by creative example can be effective and promote excellent growth when used in the proper dosage. However, make time to reflect (remember Part 9 of this series) and ensure whose interests and needs are being served.

Do not insist upon making claims for yourself; greatness will come to you. — The Tao of Teaching

Years ago when I was first beginning my path as an ESL teacher, a very helpful mentor warned me to avoid becoming a “sage on a stage”. The idea that a teacher or lecturer is a wellspring of knowledge, imparting his or her wisdom to the empty vessels seated in desks before him or her is obviously very teacher-centered and is (hopefully) becoming a dated method. In the student-centered model, learning flows in all directions. Everyone learns from everyone.

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Again always remember that the focus should be on the learners and the learning. Setting learning goals and working towards them is natural and useful but be careful to avoid the pursuit of greatness in yourself or for your students. Nagel encourages us to listen to the Tao:

“When the wise teacher is least insistent, greatness will come. Center your motives upon making your students the best that they can be. A high-quality environment will bring forth high-quality achievement.”

Remember that perfection is not necessary. It is more important to maintain tranquility in the learning environment, encourage growth, connect with and serve the needs of your learners at their own pace. Above all remember that learning is continuous and unique to each learner.

Never stop learning.

Be tranquil to receive all that will flow your way. — The Tao of Teaching

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…this is the final installment in this series. You can read the Epilogue here. It includes links to the other 9 parts of this series.

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